Tuesday, June 30, 2009

It has been almost two weeks

Sunday the 21st, Eric, Elias (Eric’s friend and number one apprentice) and I traveled a short distance north on a very torn up, bone rattlingly rutted highway to a beautiful mountaintop pineapple farm. A taxi wound around and around the low, lush mountainside until we stopped at a short, dirt road. It turns out Adjei, one of the apprentices lives here with his family on the weekends. The feeling is intimate and expansive at the same time. Adjei’s family lives in a complex of small buildings. The patriarch is Mr. Klu, a pleasant man who has a huge smile and ruemy, thoughtful eyes. He greeted us and began to show us around. Behind his house was dense with foliage, a school was being built across a pasture and then back down the dirt road we walked off, machete in hand, toward the pineapple farm. This is when things started getting expansive. As far off in the distance as you could see to the west the mountain continued on as part of a chain of mountains. Huge trees stood as sentinels to the farm sections. In fact when I asked about a smaller bushy tree that looked like it had palm fronds growing all over it I was told that it was a tree used by farmers to mark the corners of their plots because the tree never dies. One can to cut it down, push it over, or pull it up and as long as some root material stays in the ground the tree will regenerate.

Saw starkly present red earth mounds created by wood eating red ants (not termites), big black splotches of black ants that create an open nest around an elbow or crook of a huge branch high up in the massive trees, the jointed stalks of cassava plants (the root of which is a starchy staple in Ghanaian food), and the thick co-mingling of sword shape leaves of pineapple with their prickly fruit and flower nestled into openings of leaves.

Mr. Klu pulled off several fruit and trimmed off the top flowers and we walked back anticipating the taste of fresh pineapple. After walking back along the ridge of the mountain taking in the scene in reverse, we sat comfortably on Mr. Klu’s porch and gorged on the sweetest pineapple I have ever tasted. And later had banku, which is a starchy paste made of cassava root and corn meal pounded together and eaten with a pepper spicy stew of goat meat and tomato paste and vegetables. Adjei was interested in the running shoes I had on so I told him if he brought pineapple to the workshop every week they were his at the end of my stay.










This week I worked much more in the shop. I have built and shaped the fuselage of an airplane coffin, contracted some sort of rash (cause unknown), also contracted a cold, learned to find my way to breakfast and the shop by myself in a taxi, and eaten a lot more banku and foo foo (very spicy, very yummy).

Imagine a very thick, six foot cigar made up of 50 to 60 pieces all hand shaped and planed on edge and end to create a loosely coopered, angular barrel. This the plane fuselage. Coopering is the skill of making the staves of a barrel. With a barrel all pieces are approximately the same. Each edge is beveled (an angle less then 90 degrees which allows the required amount of pieces to be put tightly together creating a polygon) so that when the staves are nestled together inside metal hoops the pieces fit neatly together in a rough circle, each edge touching completely the next edge. Because the staves are straight and are wider at the center and narrower at the ends, the only place they touch when first put together are at one end inside the first metal hoop holding the staves against a round wooden end. Now the inside of the staves are heated, traditionally with a fire. This makes the wood pliable and allows it to be bent. A second metal hoop, a bit larger, is hammered along the outside of the staves away from the first hoop as the staves soften from the heat and begin to bend. As the hoop travels along it forces the wood to come together, closing up tightly the spaces between the beveled edges. Because the staves are wider at the middle the barrel diameter gets wider as the hoop forces the staves together. Once the second hoop travels maybe a third of the way along the staves a similar size third hoop is forced over the opposite ends of the staves, further bringing the staves tightly together. Now this hoop is driven a third of the way neatly bringing most of the length of the staves together. The fourth and last hoop, the same size as the first, is forced on and brings home tightly the rest of the edges and the end of the staves around the other end piece. The 'barrel' shape, which necessitates narrow ended/wide middle staves, comes from the long ago discovered mechanical advantage that wood pressing in on wood under the tension of bending forces the edges to become close to leak proof. The final tightening of the joints, with the desired impermeability, comes when each stave absorbs liquid and expands, using powerful hydraulic pressure against the metal hoops and in turn one stave against the other. Once the staves become dry again they will shrink and the barrel will leak.

The staves and therefore the volume making structure that make up the airplane coffin are created a bit differently then a true barrel. There are no hoops holding the staves together from the outside, and the beveling is quite different, as well. To hold each piece to the next, nails are driven from the newest piece made into the previous one. The desired angles are created by sight only on the next piece to be attached. In other words the top edge of piece that it is attached to is usually always square.

I began with two center pieces that are as long as the center section of the plane, about four inches wide and edges parallel to each other. I then added a piece to the each end of the center pieces as long as the next sections forward and aft. Each of these second section pieces is made perhaps a half inch less wide on the end toward the nose or tail (So, four inches to match the center section piece and three and a half at the opposite end). This allows the plane to begin to get narrower top to bottom as it gets closer to the ends. These pieces were then beveled on the end that was to be attached to the center piece, making their opposite ends closer together when attached. This allows the plane to begin to get narrower side to side, as it goes to the nose and the tail. Finally, the tail and nose sections are begun by creating foundation pieces that are three and a half inches wide at one end and one inch wide for the nose and about three inches down to two and one half inches at the tail end. The ends of the tail pieces that attach to the second section are beveled so that they can be attached by nails but first very ends are beveled at an acute angle on the inside faces and brought together, similar to an axe edge. The nose ends are kept apart about two inches and the opposite ends beveled so they can be attached at their correct angle. Now, there is a completed frame that will act as the foundation for the rest of the fuselage.

Each piece added in the center section is beveled on the bottom, connecting edge (The top edges are left square). This allows the pieces to tip in toward each other in an arch to be connected with a final 'keystone' top and bottom to complete a rough, polygonal cylinder. The ends of the center section pieces are all square and ready for the second section pieces fore and aft to be beveled and attached. Each piece of the second sections is beveled on the connecting edge and the connecting end and the width narrows as it gets closer to the nose/tail. This creates a truncated, conical shape as the pieces come together one by one. Finally, the tail and nose pieces are beveled on a connecting edge and end and the width narrows to zero or in some cases an inch to half an inch. These become the final rough cone shapes of the tail and nose.

Each of the pieces is cut from a rough cut hardwood lumber called Wawa, by using a hand saw, either manual or electric. In the case of the manual saw, the tool is held vertical, above the board, with the teeth facing away from the cutter and in essence "pulled" down through the wood (the motion is like pulling a bell rope down). When I first did this I was very skeptical, but it took very little time for me to get comfortable and begin using this new technique. If the piece needs to be tapered (narrower at one end then the other) it is done now by sawing. When making the central foundation pieces each edge is hand planed flat and straight, but square is not paramount. The attaching end of the second section pieces and the nose and tail pieces are beveled using the hand plane before being nailed on. This is relatively easy because Wawa is reasonably soft and the wood is green. (Green means the moisture in the wood has not been dried out, either by letting the cut lumber sit covered and allowing the moisture to stabilize with the surrounding air or continue to force moisture out by slowly cooking the water out in a lumber kiln.) The moisture in the wood keeps the end grain wood fibers from bending or collapsing as the hand plane blade is pushed against the wood in an attempt to cut it. The only issue for me is keeping the hand plane straight as it moves over the end of board that can be as small as an inch wide.

Each new cut piece is ½ inch wider and an inch longer then what is needed to accommodate beveling and adjusting the fit of the piece. The newly cut piece is set on the top edge of the foundation frame where it is to be attached. The new piece is then tipped on the back corner of the edge toward the center to what is the presumed angle to start the cylinder. The gap between the top front corner of the edge of the foundation piece and the bottom front corner of the edge of the new piece is the amount to be taken off the back corner of the edge of the new piece. This is where you take the gap you see and transfer it to the back bottom edge of the board by holding a pencil point at the presumed distance from the edge and with the aid of one or two fingers on the edge move the pencil parallel to the edge along the length of the board. Now the board is placed in a vice and the hand plane is used at an angle to take shavings off the corner of the edge of the board until one side of the plane blade hits the pencil mark and the other side just barely touches the opposite corner of the edge creating the anticipated bevel. Take the board back to where it will be connected and see if the angle is correct. If not, redo until it is right. The more experience you have the greater the accuracy the first time. If the end of the new piece needs to be beveled it is done at this time as well. Sometimes the end has to be adjusted to accommodate the bevel of the edge and vice versa.
Once the piece fits and is at the correct angle it is nailed on using 6p box nails. Box nails are the only nails available, and box nails have large heads. The form building process includes forcing the heads of the nails below the surface of the wood with a punch so that the surface can be shaped and rounded. Sooo, each head of each nail has to be reduced by hitting the edge of the nail head with a hammer on an anvil. The 'anvils' are old, cast car or truck parts with various flat surfaces. These 'anvils' also serve as hold downs to keep boards steady while cutting with saws. When the nails are set into the green wood they begin to rust and grab the fibers around them and hold very fast. In fact the actual pounding of the nail bit by bit into the pushes the wood fibers out of the way but the fibers push back and grasp the nail after it has been fully set. Using nail guns to shoot nails saves time but the physics between the nail and wood is not the same. The force of the gun tends to make the nail rip the fibers and the grab is less strong.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

How did I get here?

In one sense the ride has been very linear. Each step leading to another, and another, and another until the beginning has become a distant memory. A memory that seems familiar like an old story repeated many times, but it's just that, an old story as if experienced by someone else. I can see how the beginning relates to what is happening now and there are a string of experiences that tie the two together, but it is not a recognizable continuum. It's more like a jumble of short stories where some of them leap forward as others end, and others run simultaneously side by side some ending for moments and then lurching back to life later on to run contiguous with new stories.

It was 1969 and I was standing in Jimmy's half dirt, half concrete floored, garage. Jimmy was pretty skilled when it came to Volkswagens. He could pull an engine in a view minutes in his dark, old garage and start stripping it before I realized what was happening. He wasn't an old pro; he was the same age as me. But somehow he had gained enough knowledge to be able to diagnose problems and go after them with confidence. He'd gone a couple years to college, but part of a liberal arts education didn't get him where he was. In fact it most assuredly had gotten in the way and working on cars was one of the reasons that he was no longer in school. Fixing Volkswagens was a full time job for him. When I asked him about it, he told me he started by fixing the little niggly problems that were a constant with old cars. He couldn't afford to pay someone to do it so he did it himself. That made sense, but he was doing stuff no weekend mechanic could dream of doing without leaving half the parts he started with on the floor with no clue as to where they went. Then I found an old spiral bound book on a shelf above his work bench. It looked like it had RC Crumb comic type caricatures on the cover peeking through layers of greasy fingerprints. It was How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step by Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot. Here I thought he was a genius and he was using the first "SOMETHING for Dummies" book. The reason I was there, beside the good conversation, the brakes on my VW Bus were mushy and I was hoping Jim could squeeze me in. He saw me with the book and said "why don't you look up bleeding brakes in the back?" I did and started reading about some no nonsense descriptions about how to and how not to bleed brakes. I had used tools before, but not on something I depended on as much as I did my old VW Bus. The descriptions were kind of funny and wise at the same time. Like a friend telling a joke about how he screwed up trying to do something ending with the clich├ęd, "Well, I'll never do that again". Here was a book telling you a couple of bad things along with the good things that could happen if you did a certain procedure. Every technique book I had read before had been very linear. If you do 'A', then 'B' will happen. This book was like "If you do 'A', then 'B' or maybe 'C' could happen, but you better watch out for 'D' 'cause that could cost you a couple more days and a lot more trips to the parts store".


This was a book that thought like me. I could always see a couple of different ways of looking at things. I knew one or two were better then others, but I didn't always know why. This book and another that just recently came out, Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford, talk about making choices that can have more then one outcome. They both give value to the experience of making mistakes and the knowledge gained. In fact Crawford's book argues that there are many situations where the written, analytical logic will tell you one thing, but the 'doing' and the combination of physical and cognitive experience learned by 'doing' will tell you different. This is because analytic logic is linear and the real world is always throwing a curve. There are always more variables then can be written down in a manual.

Another data base or source that I have repeatedly gone to in the past was "Fine Woodworking Magazine". It seemed early on, every time I was looking at a problem in my woodworking, there was an article or section that addressed that specific quandary. The problem was putting the information provided by the words into something that made sense in the midst of a 3D problem in a 3D world. The pictures helped, but something was still lacking. It was my deficiency of experience to plug the information into that kept me from making sense of my problem.

This leads me to the question, "How do I acquire knowledge?" And by 'knowledge' I mean 'tools' that I have with me (information, successful experiences, mistakes made, etc) and information bases (for detailed explanations, and speculations) that I know I can use because I have been there before or have heard about them and have recollections of general information headings which may have details that might be helpful. Then there are two more questions: "How do I retain that knowledge?" and "How do I apply that knowledge to a new situation?"

First of all, to be open to acquiring knowledge you always have to accept that you and your choices may fail. Not because you are a bad problem solver, in fact a good problem solver is someone that can postulate several scenarios try them out and see which ones have a chance of working and carry them out until they do or don't succeed. If they don't, start making more educated guesses and…..You see where this is going. Secondly, to allow yourself to gain knowledge you have to be active. You have to get your hands into the middle of it all and "mess around".

I found I could acquire information by watching other woodworkers do there work. I asked them questions and watched what they did. The watching made so much more sense then their words. Once that process was over the trial and error period began where I would try out what I thought I had seen and heard. This was when all the information started to become knowledge. This is when the information I had received through my filters and prejudices was tested. When the processes worked as I thought I had seen or heard them described, my experience validated the information and became knowledge that I could use again. But just as trustworthy a tool as success, failure could give me enough information to back track and make different choices to seek out new ways to validate the information. It seems that speech and writing are very limited when trying to teach or learn how to craft a thing or even diagnose a situation to make good choices to resolve a problem. These processes are cognitive and sensory all at the same time. Each decision becomes reinforced by an action and the analysis of the result. These are micro and macro. A process is made up of small steps. Each step has to be evaluated as to its effect on the success of the larger procedure. The successes or failures of these steps reinforce the choices made in a string of actions and analysis that can be productive in solving the present situation, as well as, future situations. And the ability to recognize similar situations allows one to apply the accumulated knowledge that is continually reinforced by success and near successes. The real pleasure is recognizing an application of knowledge to a new problem or situation that on initial analysis doesn't seem to apply. It seems that by putting together two or more seemingly unrelated bits of knowledge can address a problem from an up to now unseen direction. To keep this knowledge current and accessible I have to practice the several elements that make up the decision making, the application of choice, and then the analysis of attaining the desired outcome. This practice deepens the quality and quantity of my experience.


This is all leading to how I became an apprentice coffin maker. While in graduate school I was studying the arts of the Yoruba groups of Nigeria. While on the internet looking at sources, up popped images of colorfully painted sculptures from Ghana that were also coffins. I was stunned. I had not seen imagery like this before and certainly not anything like it for the ritual of burial. There were fish, trucks, bottles of beer, boats, writing pens, almost anything one could imagine were assembled out of wood, carved and painted to be used as caskets. The more I learned, the more amazing the whole story became. It seems that a man named Kane Kwei was a carpenter in mid-20th century Ghana. He was well trained by the best carpenter of the time. That carpenter had made among other things, palanquins for chiefs in the villages and towns around and in Accra. One palanquin was made in the form of a cocoa pod and delivered to a chief just before his death. The chief's family decided to bury him in the cocoa pod.

Some time later Kane Kwei's grandmother died and inspired by the cocoa pod palanquin that became a chief's coffin, he decided to make an airplane coffin for her. Her long held but unrealized hope was to fly in an airplane so Kane Kwei gave her dream to her after death. Many were taken by his idea and his sculptural talent and encouraged him to make more. From this a business grew and his work became known not only in his home town of Teshie but around the world. Examples of his work were the amazing things I was finding on the internet and eventually in a book I found by Thierry Secretan.

Less then a year ago I found a website by a woman, MaPo Kinnord-Payton, who often traveled to Ghana leading groups of students studying different arts. She had images of the wonderful fantasy coffins of Teshie on her site and I contacted her. I asked if anyone of the artists she knew would be interested in having someone come study with them. She did, and she gave me the email address for Eric Annan Kwei, the grandson of Kane Kwei. This was an opportunity for me to learn first hand how these amazing sculptures were designed and constructed. I emailed Eric and he responded favorably. During a several month period, we communicated back and forth to work out all the details. And, in a short time, June 15th arrived and I was on a 20 hour flying marathon that put me in Kotoka International Airport in Accra.

The first four days seemed like a month. I was immediately welcomed. I have met many of Eric's family (there are many more), begun an airplane coffin, been initiated as an apprentice and eaten with great pleasure Banku and FooFoo, and will soon visit his family village. I am staying in his father's house which is a few kilometers from the shop. The shop is in Teshie on the main highway from Accra to Tema. It is the same place his grandfather had his business until his death in 1992.

The initiation started by gathering all the material and objects and …. a sheep. The material and objects were gifts to the family and apprentices. The initiation included the elders of Eric's family; Cedi, his father; Adjetey, his uncle from his Grandmother's family; and Adjei, his uncle from his Grandfather's family. They gave prayers and spilled libations on the ground to honor the ancestors, not the least of which is Kane Kwei. After Eric presented the new apprentice and the giving of gifts to the elders, pencils were given by me to the other apprentices, to me and also to make a connection of sharing work. Then I gave each apprentice two boxes of matches to help light his fire. The women of the house, members of Eric's family, who live next to and behind the shop were each given three boxes of matches for their fire. This introduced me as a new apprentice and let them know I will now be around. Then everyone is given a gift of soda.

The beginning of the last part of the initiation starts with my taking the sheep to a table to be sacrificed to connect the ceremony and the apprentice to the ancestors. I took off my shoes to connect with the earth. Spilling the blood of the sheep on the earth is to honor the ancestors and I placed both feet under the dripping blood to make a link through the sacrifice with them, a very serious moment. The sheep is then prepared and butchered for the feast of a cassava root/corn paste and a spicy hot sheep stew. The paste is balled up in the right hand and dipped into the sauce and eaten with occasional piece of meat. This feast is a communal occasion and anything but serious. Around the table sat the master, an uncle and the other apprentices all telling stories and jokes on each other. As one said next to me "It is boys being boys".











The first thing I started as an apprentice was an airplane coffin. I started with the window section of
each side, extending the section forward and back until there were two pointed ends. When the two parts just forward and behind the window section were to be cut to the angle that would begin the narrowing of the plane body toward the front and back points, Eric asked his senior apprentice, Elias, to come look at the frame from the front end and judge whether the angles were correct. Instead of going to the existing plane coffin, taking off the lid, and rather awkwardly projecting a measuring tape in toward the back and front to measure the distance between the sides, he judged the position of the four pieces by eye. I asked why he didn't measure. All Eric said was, "He just knows".

Then the upper sections are formed using a wooden hand plane to bevel the edges and then nailed one on top of the other starting at the base. The result is an approximation of the roundness of the fuselage but in a faceted manner. The middle section is built up until a 3" to 4" wide opening is filled at the top with a key piece beveled on both edges. Then the front and back sections are built piece by beveled piece to each other as the each piece's end is beveled and connected to the mid section. Once this is done, it will be turned over for a similar process until the fuselage is complete.

The manner in which the edges are beveled is again by eye. A bevel square is taken to an existing plane coffin and the angle that the two faces of edge joined pieces create is captured by laying the two connected parts of the tool, one on each face directly across the joint until each part lays flat on each conjoined face. This angle tool is then taken to the newly constructed base frame and one piece is set one on top of the other and the top piece tipped until the two pieces approximate the angle on the tool. The gap between indicates how much is to be taken of the back edge of the top piece to create the correct angled bevel. Now I would ordinarily measure this gap and transfer with my measuring tape the gap size to the back edge and with a straight edge or marking gauge draw the line. But Eric and the apprentices are teaching me how to approximate the gap by eye and with the last two fingers grasping the edge and the other three fingers keeping the pencil at the "eyed" distance draw a parallel line to indicate the stopping point of my bevel that I will create with the hand plane. Now, if that was hard for you to read it was just as painful for me to write and I still don't think I did a thorough enough attempt at explaining it. Needless to say it took less then 30 seconds for the demonstration and about the same time or less for me to get a reasonable approximation of what was desired. After a few tries I was beginning to get it and each time I do it I am more efficient and accurate. It wasn't explained to me verbally; in fact communication is hard because of our different accents and choices of words to explain things to each other. But the demo and practice with a few words of description, encouragement, and "No, no, like this" and then another short demo. I am doing exactly the same thing demonstrating and encouraging everyone to try a power grinder that I brought to help shape wood. Up until know they have used hand planes and spokeshaves to shape. The grinder can the same operation faster and in most instances can be more accurate. The same sort of non-verbal communication is going on here, as well, to great effect. Some are picking it up quicker then others and this seems to relate to experience, touch, and a 3D physical sense around an object.


Also, during this last week Eric and I have been running back and forth to Accra (Teshie is about 12 or 13 km outside of Accra) by taxi trying to help him prepare for going to Belgium the 3rd week of August for a month long show of his and his grandfather's coffins in a gallery in Antwerp. He and I will leave Aug 19th for an opening on the 21st. I will stay until the 24th and Eric will stay for the month long duration of the show.